To keep or not to keep those New Year’s resolutions?

Published by  News archives

On 31st Jan 2022

A woman stretches before a run, with 2022 written on the ground.

New research suggests that people may not always want help with sticking to their New Year’s resolutions.

Individuals often make resolutions in January to maintain healthy lifestyle regimes - for example to eat better or exercise more often - then fail to keep them.

Behavioural scientists frequently interpret such behaviour as evidence of a conflict between two ‘selves’ of a person – a Planner (in charge of self-control) and a Doer (who responds spontaneously to the temptations of the moment). 

A team of researchers from the Universities of East Anglia (UEA), Warwick, Cardiff and Lancaster in the UK and Passau in Germany investigated how far people identify with their Planners and their Doers.

They found that while participants differed in the relative importance they attached to spontaneity and self-control, overall, attitudes in favour of spontaneity were almost as common as attitudes in favour of self-control.

Public policies designed to ‘nudge’ people towards healthy lifestyles are often justified on the grounds that people think of their Planners as their true selves and disown the actions of their Doers. 

However, in their study published today in the journal Behavioural Public Policy, the authors argue this justification overlooks the possibility that people value spontaneity as well as self-control, and approve of their own flexible attitudes to resolutions.

Robert Sugden, a professor in UEA's School of Economics, said: “Our key message is not about whether nudges towards healthy lifestyles are good for people’s long-term health or happiness. It is about whether such nudges can be justified on the grounds that they help individuals to overcome what they themselves acknowledge as self-control problems. 

“If that idea is to be used as a guiding principle for public policy, we need to be assured that individuals want to be helped in this way. Our findings suggest that people often may not want this.”

Co-author Andrea Isoni, a professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, said: “We conclude that identifying when and where individuals want to be helped to avoid self-control failures is not as straightforward as many behavioural economists seem to think.

“We believe our findings point to the importance of treating desires for spontaneity as equally deserving of attention as desires for self-control, and as suggesting interesting lines of further research.

“One idea it would be useful to investigate is whether some kinds of deviation from long-term goals are viewed as more spontaneity-affirming than others. For example, we found a contrast between our respondents’ spontaneity-favouring attitudes to sugary drinks and restaurant desserts and their self-control-favouring attitudes to exercise. Breaking a health-oriented resolution by ordering a crème brûlée is perhaps a more positive way of expressing spontaneity than not taking one’s daily run on a wet day.”

The experiment, run via an online survey, began by asking each of the 240 participants to recall and write about a particular type of previous episode in their life. For some, this was a memorable meal when they had particularly enjoyed the food; for others, it was an effort they had made that was good for their health and they felt satisfied about.

They were then asked to say how well they recognised themselves in various statements. These included wishes for more self-control (eg, ‘I wish I took more exercise’), regret about lapses of self-control (‘After ordering desserts in restaurants, I often feel regret’), and approval of self-control as a life strategy (‘In life it’s important to be able to resist temptation’). 

An equal number of statements expressed wishes for less self-control (eg, ‘I wish there was less social pressure to take exercise’), regret about exercising self-control (‘After ordering a healthy dish, I often wish I’d chosen something tastier’), and approval of spontaneity (‘Having occasional treats is an important source of happiness for me, even if they are bad for my health’).

Overall, respondents recognised themselves almost as often in statements favouring spontaneity as in statements favouring self-control. In responding to statements about what was important in life, most participants maintained both that it was important to make long-term plans and stick to them and that there was no harm in occasionally taking small enjoyments rather than sticking to those plans. Surprisingly, attitudes were not significantly affected by the type of episode respondents had recalled.

The research was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

‘Taking the New Year’s Resolution Test seriously: Eliciting individuals’ judgements about self-control and spontaneity’ by Kevin Grubiak, Andrea Isoni, Robert Sugden, Mengjie Wang and Jiwei Zheng is published in Behavioural Public Policy on January 31.

Latest News

  News
A man at work smiles looking out of a window.
26 May 2022

New toolkit launched to help businesses boost staff wellbeing

Employers can find out the potential financial benefits of increasing employee wellbeing with an innovative cost effectiveness calculator, launched today.

Read more >
  News
Engineers work on an offshore wind farm
25 May 2022

New project launched to boost number of women working in offshore wind

The Offshore Wind Industry Council (OWIC) and the University of East Anglia (UEA) have announced a new joint research project which aims to tackle the gender...

Read more >
  News
A female protestor displays the
19 May 2022

USA slumbers, Europe leads in electoral integrity

The world’s leading democracy is falling behind on electoral integrity, according to new findings from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Royal Military...

Read more >
  News
Cranberries held in two hands.
19 May 2022

How cranberries could improve memory and ward off dementia

Adding cranberries to your diet could help improve memory and brain function, and lower ‘bad’ cholesterol – according to new research from the University of East...

Read more >
Are you searching for something?
  News
Cranberries held in two hands.
19 May 2022

How cranberries could improve memory and ward off dementia

Adding cranberries to your diet could help improve memory and brain function, and lower ‘bad’ cholesterol – according to new research from the University of East...

Read more >
  News
Surgeons perform heart surgery in an operating theatre.
18 May 2022

Timing of heart surgery crucial, research shows

Valve replacement heart surgery should be performed earlier than conventionally thought for people with aortic stenosis – according to new research from the...

Read more >
  News
16 May 2022

From testing for plastics in teabags to a Q&A with Countrywise’s Liz Bonnin: UEA’s Green Film Festival is back

Following a two-year pandemic hiatus, the Green Film Festival at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is back from Thursday 19 May - Saturday 21 May, offering...

Read more >
  News
Will Harris
26 May 2022

Will Harris appointed as new Visiting Poetry Fellow at The British Archive for Contemporary Writing

The British Archive for Contemporary Writing, based in UEA Library, has announced the appointment of a new Visiting Poetry Fellow, Will Harris.

Read more >
  News
World of lights with a really bright light shining from Norwich
12 May 2022

UEA’s research confirmed as ‘world-leading’ by national assessment

The global significance and real-world impact of the University of East Anglia’s (UEA’s) research has been confirmed with the Research Excellence Framework 2021...

Read more >
  News
11 May 2022

Innovation & Impact Awards 2022 winners

From saving the world’s animals through socks, improving animal nutrition to sequencing COVID-19 genomes and developing a diagnostic device for dizziness, there...

Read more >
  News
27 May 2022

Your Chem Magazine May issue

The Spring edition of our UEA Chemistry Magazine: yoUr chEm mAg is now available.

Read more >